Tours in Ecuador | Mainland Highlights
Apart from the Galapagos Islands, which are undoubtedly the most famous destination for tours in Ecuador, this biodiverse Andean country really has a great deal to offer on the mainland. Below are some of the highlights that can easily be added to a Galapagos cruise, either before or after your time on the islands.
1. Explore Quito, the capital of Ecuador
High in the Andes, Ecuador’s capital oozes history, atmosphere, and charm. You will almost certainly be spending the night in Quito before your cruise, in fact, we recommend two nights minimum. Two nights here means you can see something of the city but also acts as a “buffer” before your cruise to protect you if your international flight is delayed on the way to Ecuador.
Churches, convents and other historic buildings are complemented by cafés and museums plus there are some really great places to stay. The center of the city is compact so exploring on foot is not an issue. Quito has two main divisions; the commercial and business district and the old heart of the colonial city which is UNESCO recognized.
Not only does a couple of nights act as a security buffer but you have a chance to acclimatize for any other activities you intend to do, see the list below. Apart from walking another lovely way to see the city is via the cable car ride up to El Panecilla hill.
A trip to the “middle of the world” monument is something you might consider, so you can stand straddling the Equator. Also, on a Monday you could see the weekly ‘Changing of the Guard’ ceremony at the Presidential palace. Soldiers on horseback and a marching band create plenty of pomp before the president appears on his balcony and the national anthem is played.
2. Shop till you drop at Otavalo market
Less than two hours drive north of Quito is the small town of Otavalo. The market here is famous as a draw for tourists as it attracts people from all the surrounding villages who come to sell their wares. These local people dress in colorful traditional clothing adding great color to the gathering.
Traveling to Otavalo through the Andean countryside and small villages is a very enjoyable journey. You will stop along the way to watch skilled artisans at work in their chosen crafts. For example, you might visit a music shop to see pan pipes being made, or maybe you are interested in weaving and will visit a blanket workshop.
There are several grand colonial haciendas in the area, many of which date back to the 17th century. Some of these lovely country houses have been converted into high-end hotels and are filled with period paintings and antiques. They are beautiful to behold, offering the chance to relax in their gardens, with an abundance of flowers and birds. Staying a night or two will provide the chance for cycling, hiking or horse riding excursions in the surrounding countryside.
3. Refresh yourself in the biodiverse cloudforest
On the slopes descending from the Andes, you will find a dense cloud forest jam-packed with birds and insects. Within a two hour drive from the capital, you will be in one of the pristine natural reserves covered by cloud forest. In Colombia, Ecuador Peru, and Bolivia this cloud forest ecosystem provides a great alternative to those who can’t find the time to visit the Amazon, but still want to enjoy great biodiversity.
Birdwatchers will be in heaven here, due to the fact that hundreds of different species have been recorded in the region including many species of hummingbirds, mountain toucans, trogons, and tanagers. There are several eco-lodges within easy traveling distance by road from Quito. There is a fair range of styles, from simple and rustic to luxury and exclusive. Much depends on your budget, of course, just drop us an email for more details.
4. The Amazon Jungle
We have a page dedicated to the Amazon in Ecuador – please click here
5. Explore Cotapaxi National Park
Cotopaxi is a huge, beautiful, and active volcano south of Quito in the heart of the Avenue of the Volcanoes. This cones´ latest eruption was in August 2015, and such was the strength of this eruption that people on planes coming into Quito months later could still see the smoke and ash.
There are a number of great activities you can enjoy in the Cotopaxi National Park, and you can base yourself in one of the rustic lodges in the area. Serious climbers can take on the summit if they are well trained, and depending on the volcanic activity at the time of course. Even if you are not a serious climber you can ascend to the basecamp for fantastic views. Add to this hiking, biking, horse riding, and birdwatching, there is plenty to keep you busy in the great outdoors.
6. Take the Devil’s Nose train journey
Some great things come to an end, like riding on the roof of the Devil’s Nose train. We remember when we did it, we survived of course but due to accidents happening, the practice stopped. Now all clients travel inside the train and the views are just as spectacular, without the risk of falling off. Clinging to the steep side of the mountains, the train winds its torturous way through numerous switchbacks offering lovely vistas. With no space open a curve, the train shunts backward and forward as it makes its way down towards the coast. It is a great feat of engineering skill and one of South America’s most iconic railway journeys.
7. Cuenca, the birthplace of the Panama hat
Cuenca is probably the most picturesque city in Ecuador and the climate is perfect too, so there is a lot to like. Bizarrely, it is also the birthplace of the Panama hat, which was so popular among workers on the Panama Canal in the early 1900s that the name stuck. In fact, the species of palm that they are made from doesn’t even grow in Panama at all. The city is extremely proud of its famous hat, and you can visit the factories where they are made, and buy one to take home of course.
Founded in the 16th century by Spanish Conquistadors, the city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Some of the real estate on the main square has been owned by the same families since colonial times and have maintained their character. It is a beautiful city to wander around, you could spend hours exploring the cobbled streets and market squares.
If any of these destinations get your juices flowing, let us know. We can combine them with the Galapagos in one package with flights, hotels, tours, and whatever else you may want.